Workplace Issues More About Organization Level Than Generation

Early in my exploration of Millennial Marketing I began to avoid conversations about age-related workplace conflict. Speaking in front of older or mixed age audiences, I learned the hard way that any discussion of Millennials in the workplace was likely to be emotional and impossible to resolve. Individual workplace experiences are varied and vivid, making it difficult to bring the cold light of research productively to the discussion. Much safer to stick to marketing issues.

New research by Jennifer J. Deal, a research scientist at the highly respected Center for Creative Leadership is based on seven years of research on more than 3,000 leaders. Her conclusions call into question the hundreds if not thousands of blog posts, speeches and books on workplace generational conflict.

Deal’s research suggests that while age-related conflict may be real, looking at it through a generational prism is wrong and misleading. The underlying issues are more likely to be driven by differences in level on the totem pole than differences in generational values or outlook.

The Myth of Generational Differences in the Workplace

I haven’t read Deal’s new book, Retiring the Generation Gap: How Employees Young & Old Can Find Common Ground (Jossey-Bass), but I plan to. According to a summary on the American Management Association website, differences in ‘clout’ are more useful than generation in explaining why the generations sometimes have a hard time getting along.  The research supports the notion that we all mostly want the same things, it’s just that some are in a better position to get what they want.  Deal says, “The so-called generation gap is, in large part, the result of miscommunication and misunderstanding, fueled by common insecurities and the desire for clout.”

Here are some of the commonalities revealed by research:

  • All generations have similar values. For example, family tops the list for all of the generations. The most striking result of the research, Deal says, is how similar the generations are in the values that matter most.
  • Everyone wants respect. Everyone wants respect, but the generations don’t define it in the same way. In the study, older individuals talked about respect in terms of “giving my opinions the weight I believe they deserve,” while younger respondents characterized respect as “listen to me, pay attention to what I have to say.”
  • Leaders must be trustworthy. Different generations do not have notably different expectations of their leaders. Above all else, people of all generations want leaders they can trust.
  • Nobody likes change. Resistance to change has nothing to do with age; it has to do with how much you stand to gain or lose as a result of the change.
  • Loyalty depends on context. The amount of time a worker puts in each day has more to do with his or her level in the organization than with age. The higher the level, the more hours worked.
  • Everyone wants to learn. Learning and development were among the issues brought up most frequently by people of all generations. Everyone wants to learn and to ensure they have the training to do their job well.
  • Everyone likes feedback. According to the research, everyone wants to know how they are doing and to learn how they can do better.

Millennials Just More Frustrated

My discussions with Millennials in panel discussions, the classroom and one-on-one square totally with the research. They do want the same things, but they are more frustrated by the apparent gap between where they are at work and where they want to be. While many interpret thisas ‘impatience’ or ‘entitlement’, isn’t everyone who lacks the ability to get what they want capable of being a tad annoying?

Where I think the research may stop short (and I can’t say for sure until I read the book) is in acknowledging that there are some aspects of worklife that Millennials will have a harder time accepting even once they have the desired ‘clout’.  Personally, I hope they never lose their intolerance for workplace inefficiency, inequality of opportunity and desire to  contribute to more than just the bottom line. Survey after survey has demonstrated that they are likely to demand more of their employers than a comfortable, secure living and are even willing to compromise a bit on that to work for companies that stand for more.

In a post over two years ago, I maintained that Millennials aren’t lazy, just misunderstood.

Boomer and X’er bosses view unwillingness to sacrifice as ‘laziness’. Yet Gen Y is not willing to concede that just because they seek balance, they are any less committed. According to Adrian Dayton, a young attorney who hosted a panel on workplace issues at law firms, they are just as motivated, but their goal is different. “We are not motivated by money. At least not as much as our parents were. The currency we are most interested in is lifestyle. Some of us are brilliant and hard working, but you have to dangle the right carrot in front of us.” So what is that ‘right carrot’? Money? Time Off? No, it’s Voice. And Context.


Evidence that “different carrots” work with Gen Y are plentiful. Deloitte Volunteer IMPACT Survey shows that benefits like the opportunity to volunteer can result in more loyal and satisfied Millennial employees.  Millennials who frequently volunteer were found to be nearly twice as likely to be “very satisfied” with the progression of their career and two times more likely to rate their corporate culture as very positive as compared to those who rarely or never volunteer (56 percent vs. 28 percent).

I still intend to avoid discussion of workplace issues, but now thanks to research like Deal’s and Deloitte’s,  I have some ‘cold light’ of research to justify my position.

For links to more research on Millennials in the workplace visit our Millennial Marketing wiki: